Ter­ri­tory eu­thana­sia bill de­feated.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Karen Mid­dle­ton

David Ley­on­hjelm’s bill to per­mit the ter­ri­to­ries to pass as­sisted dy­ing leg­is­la­tion was de­feated de­spite ar­gu­ment it is as much about ter­ri­tory rights. By Karen Mid­dle­ton.

It is not of­ten in par­lia­ment that an out­spo­ken Greens se­na­tor from Tas­ma­nia and an equally out­spo­ken Na­tion­als se­na­tor from Queens­land can find com­mon ground, let alone em­pa­thy.

But a melan­choly un­der­stand­ing passed be­tween Nick McKim and Barry O’Sul­li­van in the Se­nate on Tues­day night as each re­vealed he had worked with doc­tors to has­ten the death of some­one he loved.

They were speak­ing dur­ing the de­bate of Lib­eral Demo­crat David Ley­on­hjelm’s pri­vate mem­ber’s bill aimed at restor­ing the right of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory and the ACT to pass leg­is­la­tion on vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia, a right with­drawn when fed­eral par­lia­ment passed an­other pri­vate mem­ber’s bill 21 years ago.

De­spite his early con­fi­dence of suc­cess, Ley­on­hjelm’s bill was de­feated on Wed­nes­day night, 36 votes to 34.

Though McKim and O’Sul­li­van ended up on dif­fer­ent sides of the vote, the sto­ries they told on the way to their de­ci­sions were eerily sim­i­lar and achingly sad.

McKim ex­plained how com­pas­sion­ate med­i­cal staff had helped speed up the death of his ter­mi­nally ill fa­ther.

“It’s very clear that this is go­ing on in pal­lia­tive care wards around the coun­try,” he said.

“I’m not go­ing to name the ward or the hospi­tal, but I’m very happy to place on record that, last year, my fa­ther was eu­thanised at his re­quest in a pal­lia­tive care ward in Tas­ma­nia. I’m re­ally pleased, and I thanked the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als pro­foundly, from the bot­tom of my heart, for killing my fa­ther, be­cause he wanted it, he was lu­cid, he was ra­tio­nal and it was the right thing to do, based on com­pas­sion and hu­man­ity.”

He went on to de­scribe the ter­ri­ble, de­grad­ing cir­cum­stances in which the ter­mi­nally ill of­ten found them­selves and the agony of fam­ily mem­bers try­ing to help them in their dy­ing days.

O’Sul­li­van spoke next.

While his views con­trast with the Greens on this and many other is­sues he made sure to note the Tas­ma­nian’s “dif­fi­cult con­tri­bu­tion”, ad­ding: “Can I say that I’ve had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence.

“This is a very dif­fi­cult sub­ject, a very emo­tive sub­ject, that will test us all,” O’Sul­li­van said.

The Na­tion­als se­na­tor re­vealed he had been bur­dened with de­ci­sions that helped end the lives of both his mother and his wife. When his 90-year-old mother de­scended into a coma, and with doc­tors ad­vis­ing him that they could not re­store her to the life she’d been liv­ing, O’Sul­li­van in­structed them not to pro­long it. His mother died peace­fully without in­ter­ven­tion.

His wife’s pass­ing proved more dif­fi­cult. O’Sul­li­van bat­tled his emo­tions in the Se­nate on Tues­day night as he ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion he faced when his wife suf­fered an aneurysm and also slipped into a coma.

“On all the best ad­vice we had – upon which I re­lied – there was to be no re­turn,” he said. “My wife po­ten­tially could have lived, ac­cord­ing to the med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers, for lit­er­ally years in that state.”

Adopt­ing McKim’s de­lib­er­ately vague de­scrip­tion of how and where the “events took place”, O’Sul­li­van de­clined to de­tail his con­ver­sa­tions with med­i­cal staff on the night his wife died.

“But clearly dur­ing the course of that evening the ad­min­is­tra­tion of her med­i­ca­tion, per­haps, pro­moted her de­par­ture ear­lier than na­ture would have or­dered,” he said.

O’Sul­li­van’s ex­pe­ri­ence led him to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion on eu­thana­sia than Nick McKim.

“I’ve got to tell you that in those cir­cum­stances fam­ily are in no po­si­tion to be able to think clearly, and any leg­is­la­tion into the fu­ture would need to recognise in de­tail the fact that fam­ily, next of kin and loved ones, at a time when they need to be able to think clearly and make clear de­ci­sions, have no ca­pac­ity to do that. So, if we talk about the prospect of in­vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia – that’s to say that the per­son is in no po­si­tion [to de­cide] what hap­pens to them – we would need to be ex­tremely care­ful around the en­vi­ron­ment that near and dear and loved ones find them­selves in as they make that de­ci­sion.”

O’Sul­li­van ac­knowl­edged the range of cir­cum­stances in which such de­ci­sions might be made and was con­cerned leg­is­la­tion could not cover all of them.

“I don’t strug­gle with where I am – I know where I am,” he said. “But I strug­gle with the ques­tion when I hear so many strong ar­gu­ments made by so many peo­ple who them­selves have had ex­pe­ri­ences that I haven’t had.”

He pointed to “in­tel­li­gent peo­ple like Se­na­tor McKim, whose real-life ex­pe­ri­ences” had in­formed his sup­port for eu­thana­sia.

“I’m afraid I can’t make that jour­ney,” O’Sul­li­van said. “I won’t al­low my­self to make that jour­ney be­cause I fear that there will be so many cases where the ap­pli­ca­tion of leg­is­la­tion could be cor­rupted, where there’s hu­man er­ror and where, in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, peo­ple take ad­van­tage of their power… and I re­ally think that we need to pro­ceed with great cau­tion.”

McKim and O’Sul­li­van were among dozens of senators who put their views on the record in a de­bate that was fre­quently poignant and reflected the spec­trum of com­mu­nity opin­ion on the sen­si­tive is­sue.

As with other con­science mat­ters, po­si­tions crossed party lines.

Some senators voted solely on the is­sue of the ter­ri­to­ries’ right to au­ton­omy, and not on eu­thana­sia at all. While the Com­mon­wealth can’t over­turn states’ laws, it has the con­sti­tu­tional power to over­ride the ter­ri­to­ries. This was used to over­turn the ACT’s same-sex mar­riage laws that op­er­ated briefly in 2013 and, be­fore that, to en­act a 1997 bill by Lib­eral MP Kevin An­drews to stop eu­thana­sia in the NT.

An­drews’ bill was al­lowed to pro­ceed to a vote af­ter then prime min­is­ter John Howard gave it pri­or­ity on the leg­isla­tive list, which is the PM’s pre­rog­a­tive, though not one ex­er­cised by Mal­colm Turn­bull in Ley­on­hjelm’s case.

This week, NT La­bor se­na­tor Malarndirri McCarthy said she – like many other Indige­nous Aus­tralians – was deeply con­cerned about the idea of help­ing peo­ple die but that as a ter­ri­tory rep­re­sen­ta­tive, she con­sid­ered her­self obliged to back the bill. Oth­ers in­clud­ing ACT Lib­eral se­na­tor Zed Se­selja, who took the op­po­site po­si­tion, were driven solely by their views on eu­thana­sia.

New South Wales La­bor se­na­tor Jenny McAllister said the chal­lenge ul­ti­mately was to craft a health sys­tem that could man­age these is­sues “with hu­man­ity and com­pas­sion” and grant peo­ple au­ton­omy over their fi­nal months, not just their fi­nal mo­ments.

“When death is robbed of the el­e­ment of sur­prise, we have the chance to choose how to meet it,” McAllister said.

“And we should give peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to make these de­ci­sions.”

Queens­land Lib­eral se­na­tor Amanda Stoker was equally con­vinced that leg­is­lat­ing to al­low vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia was wrong. “If passed, it is a fun­da­men­tal change in the way that we ap­proach hu­man ex­is­tence, the essence of life,” Stoker said.

“It sends a dis­turb­ing mes­sage that there are some peo­ple in our com­mu­nity who are bet­ter off dead.”

Many senators made their de­ci­sions based on a com­bi­na­tion of the two is­sues.

South Aus­tralian Cen­tre Al­liance se­na­tor Stir­ling Griff said Kevin An­drews’ bill had been “an in­sult” to those in the par­lia­ments of the NT and ACT.

“He had a moral ob­jec­tion to eu­thana­sia, and so he used the big­gest stick he could find to im­pose his will: the Con­sti­tu­tion,” Griff said.

Ear­lier this year, Vic­to­ria be­came the first Aus­tralian state to le­galise vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia. Western Aus­tralia is con­duct­ing a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry into the is­sue and Tas­ma­nian par­lia­men­tar­i­ans are con­tem­plat­ing what would be their fourth at­tempt.

The state’s sec­ond at­tempt to leg­is­late eu­thana­sia, back in 2013, was de­feated by a sin­gle vote.

Re­cently the NSW par­lia­ment also de­bated le­gal­i­sa­tion with the same re­sult. But the ter­ri­to­ries re­main un­able to dis­cuss it.

David Ley­on­hjelm has ac­cused Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull of rat­ting on a deal he says they made in 2016. In re­turn for Ley­on­hjelm’s vote to re-es­tab­lish the Aus­tralian Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Com­mis­sion, the Lib­eral Demo­crat says Turn­bull promised to al­low his eu­thana­sia and ter­ri­to­ries’ rights bill to be de­bated in the Se­nate with Coali­tion MPs granted a con­science vote.

But when the bill was in­tro­duced, the govern­ment tried to stop it be­ing de­bated. Ley­on­hjelm had to se­cure La­bor and Greens sup­port to pro­ceed.

He says Turn­bull promised if the bill passed the Se­nate, he would al­low de­bate in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives too, also with a con­science vote.

Mal­colm Turn­bull de­nies there was a prom­ise or a deal.

“I’ll be very clear,” he told the ABC last week. “David Ley­on­hjelm asked me if the govern­ment would vote to en­able a vote to be held on this ques­tion in the Se­nate, and we did not do that. Ac­tu­ally, the vote to bring it on to the no­tice paper, as it were, was car­ried de­spite op­po­si­tion from govern­ment mem­bers.”

Ley­on­hjelm says the govern­ment fa­cil­i­tated a group of doc­tors do­ing the rounds in Par­lia­ment House this week, lob­by­ing against the bill.

He says he was told Turn­bull could not af­ford an­other con­fronta­tion with the con­ser­va­tives in his govern­ment, al­ready pres­sur­ing him over the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee and reli­gious free­doms – an is­sue linked to the same-sex mar­riage de­bate.

“Ap­par­ently he is ex­tremely alarmed about it,” Ley­on­hjelm told The Satur­day Paper. “I’ve heard that now from both a staffer close to the prime min­is­ter and a min­is­ter.”

Ley­on­hjelm says an­other par­lia­men­tar­ian’s staff mem­ber, who he re­fuses to name, over­heard a min­is­ter telling two Lib­eral senators they needed to “take one for the team” and vote against the bill.

But one of the senators al­legedly in­volved told The Satur­day Paper the con­ver­sa­tion never took place.

Even be­fore the Se­nate had voted on Ley­on­hjelm’s bill, an­other bill had sprung up separately in the lower house, co-spon­sored by La­bor MPs Luke Gosling, from the NT, and An­drew Leigh, from the ACT. It is due to be in­tro­duced next week, though the govern­ment ap­pears likely to block fur­ther de­bate.

The two MPs have op­pos­ing views on eu­thana­sia, with Leigh sup­port­ing le­gal­i­sa­tion and Gosling against it. But they are united in their be­lief that the ter­ri­to­ries’ lack of con­sti­tu­tional sta­tus com­pared with the states should not rob them of leg­isla­tive in­de­pen­dence.

“We’ve got to keep the pres­sure up on this,” Leigh told The Satur­day Paper.

This week, the ACT and NT chief min­is­ters, An­drew Barr and Michael Gun­ner, con­demned the Se­nate’s de­ci­sion.

Barr urged his fed­eral La­bor col­leagues to contemplate a bind­ing vote in fu­ture on grounds that, fed­er­ally, the is­sue should be con­sid­ered as one of ter­ri­to­ries’ rights, not eu­thana­sia.

“There are more peo­ple who live in the ter­ri­to­ries than live in the great state of Tas­ma­nia,” Barr said. He pre­dicted vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia would fol­low the tra­jec­tory of same-sex mar­riage, and be leg­is­lated even­tu­ally.

On Thurs­day, the ACT Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly is­sued its first ever for­mal “re­mon­strance” – an ob­jec­tion lodged with a higher au­thor­ity – send­ing a mes­sage of protest to the Se­nate and ask­ing it to “re­flect” on its de­ci­sion.

But af­ter hav­ing reflected all week, it’s likely to be a while be­fore Se­nate does

• so again.

David Ley­on­hjelm in the Se­nate this week.

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Paper’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.